There are other mechanisms. Even in departments and agencies with special expertise in the sciences, there is often an entrenched corps of civil servants that resists transparency and access—often as a result of turf battles and a sense that bosses, and their edicts, come and go—and survives from one administration in the other. New appointments often do nothing to help matters. Numerous reporters pointed out that the top press officers at departments and agencies often are recruited from a president’s campaign staff, with disastrous results. “They want to run government agencies like they’re political campaigns and they don’t seem to understand that there ought to be a difference,” says SEJ’s Ken Ward Jr. “All the information that EPA has about its inspections, its enforcement, its science—that belongs to the public.”
Changing the culture of secrecy is a lot harder than redecorating the Oval Office. Some watchdogs believe that transparency and access have steadily diminished since the 1970s, as successive administrations clamped down more tightly, and with a greater sophistication, on the free flow of information to the public. Indeed, many veteran reporters I spoke to think that the very establishment of press policies and guidelines, not unlike those that Obama called for, are what led to problems in the first place. These edicts were supposed to open and streamline communication between government and the press, but by codifying practices such as the dreaded interview permissions and minders, they actually gave government a mechanism to block journalists when it was politically pragmatic to do so. In early August, for example, the EPA finally released its scientific integrity proposal, as per John Holdren’s instruction. But it did exactly what transparency watchdogs feared: it encouraged scientists to interact with the press, but required that they inform their superiors about those interactions and instructed public affairs staff to “attend interviews,” thereby formalizing the permissions and minders policy that journalists complain about.
Contrary to the notion that Obama would, as he promised, usher in a sea change in terms of transparency, there is a case to be made that, when it comes to controlling information via press policies, Obama is the savviest practitioner ever. Consider his adroit use of digital media as a defining example. His Open Government Directive made an unprecedented amount of federal scientific data available online. His administration touts that accomplishment as proof of transparency, but critics say that is disingenuous. In practice, the databases demonstrate how the Obama administration treats communication as a one-way street. Data, after all, rarely speak for themselves and reporters want, more than anything, to talk to the officials who collected and analyzed them. As Felice Freyer found out when she attempted to speak with the FDA about its investigation of unapproved intrauterine devices, however, the administration often prefers to publish statements online, or via social media, than make them directly available to journalists. It’s a duplicitous game that allows Obama to claim that his administration is living up to its promises. Yet almost any science reporter in the country will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth, and that even if the Office of Science and Technology Policy produces a plan for scientific integrity and transparency, it could make matters worse, not better.
Reporters on the science beat may have to accept that the days of easy access are gone—and plenty of them already do. Groups like the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Association of Health Care Journalists are still pushing for an end to interview permissions and minders, as well they should. But even their most optimistic members merely cross their fingers, knowing that if they held their breath, they’d surely expire.
This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica, whose director of computer-assisted reporting, Jennifer LaFleur, analyzed the survey data.